Exploring Life and Business with Karin Miller, Owner of Zen Tenkara

This was originally published in Voyage Magazine, Denver, March 15, 2022

 

Today we’d like to introduce you to Karin Miller. 

Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I moved to Colorado from South Florida in 1999. Although I had grown up on the water, fishing was never a part of my childhood. When I relocated to Colorado, I loved being outdoors, did a lot of hiking and was drawn to being on the water.
I was introduced to fly fishing in 2000 but found it complicated and time consuming, especially as a fulltime working mother. You could say I was a reluctant fly fisher at best.

By chance, I came across a tenkara rod and had the opportunity to tryout fishing with this fixed-line method. With no reel and no guides, tenkara fishing was so simple, straight forward, and intuitive. Why hadn’t I learned to fly fish this way from the beginning? Tenkara was less complicated, and the set-up was so fast and easy that I started fishing more. In a short period of time my skills improved, and I quickly became a fly-fishing junkie.

About this time, tenkara was just being introduced to the US by a company based out of California. Colorado however, had the perfect environment and waters for this traditional small stream, small fish method. With tons of narrow rivers and creeks, and a huge community of outdoor enthusiasts, Colorado was the ideal location to not only fish tenkara but also to start a tenkara company. In 2012 Zen Fly Fishing Gear was born.

I was passionate about tenkara. Through its simplicity, I believed the method could open doors to the outside, to nature and beauty, to many people who had given up on fly fishing as a tangible pastime or sport due to its complexity and/or cost. Tenkara was not only easier to learn, it was also a less expensive method of fly fishing. People could learn through tenkara. If they enjoyed fly fishing enough to stick with it as a hobby, then tenkara was a Segway into traditional rod and reel fly fishing. Plus, tenkara was ideal for learning foundation fly fishing skills such as simple casts, fly presentation and hook sets. Through tenkara, people would become passionate about fly fishing.

Originally founded with a partner, in 2015 I took over Zen completely. Now Zen Tenkara/Zen Fly Fishing Gear is the oldest independently owned and operated tenkara company in the United States. Zen Tenkara also happens to be the only rod company 100% woman-owned, in the world. Which is a side note, but still pretty cool.

Tenkara takes a minimalist approach to fly fishing. It makes the sport more approachable, quickens the learning curve and because it’s more affordable, tenkara makes fly fishing more accessible to a broader, more diverse group of people. I like to think that tenkara is helping fly fishing evolve as a sport by creating more anglers, and that Zen Tenkara and I, are helping a little with that.

Alright, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall, and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Fly fishing is steeped in a long history of tradition. It’s considered a sport but has also been described as an art. It’s resistant and slow to change. Proposing a new method of fishing to anglers, stirred deep emotions in many fly fishermen. When I began approaching gear retailers and outfitters with our tenkara rods, there wasn’t exactly a warm welcome. In fact, even a mention of the word “tenkara” often elicited hostile reactions, especially on social media. Tenkara wasn’t respected by many fly anglers.

When Zen started to push the boundaries of the method and began targeting bigger, more powerful species, we inadvertently created a fusion between traditional fly fishing and traditional tenkara. Meshing the two methods together and landing bigger species helped bridge the gap and create more curiosity and interest in tenkara. Respect for tenkara has now grown throughout the fly-fishing industry. Interestingly, some tenkara purists haven’t like that bridging, that fusion, and claim we’re diluting the ancient method. I respectfully disagree and believe we are evolving it.

Those have been two very big hurdles: Gaining acceptance by the fly-fishing community while maintaining approval from the tenkara community. Keep in mind too, back in 2012 the fly-fishing industry was just opening its doors to female anglers. The industry didn’t interact with too many women. When Zen began, not only was I a woman, but I was also a woman promoting tenkara – not the most fashionable combination at the time. Thank goodness all of that is now changing. As the saying goes, “in the face of adversity, we build character.”

Alright, so let’s switch gears a bit and talk business. What should we know?
Zen Tenkara is a Colorado company based out of Fort Collins. We design, manufacture, and sell a broad range of tenkara fly rods, lines, and accessories online and to retailers. Zen has a reputation for being innovative and cutting edge. As an industry leader, Zen Tenkara can be credited for many tenkara “firsts” and we set the standard for US tenkara companies for producing high-quality, high performance tenkara rods. We stand behind our products with a lifetime warranty and provide exemplar customer service.

Zen isn’t just a rod company, it’s a people company. First and foremost, fishing should be fun and that’s what we keep in mind with each rod we design. We believe when you make a purchase from Zen, you’re not just buying a rod, you’re buying a whole experience.

What do you think about luck?
Luck. I’ve heard it said, it’s better to be lucky than good. I’m not sure I believe that saying, or even in luck. Good luck, bad luck, things happen all the time. How we interpret them is up to us. Whether we see something as an opportunity or a misfortune, is up to us. Synchronicity happens. Sometimes the stars just seem to line up. But I think mind-set has a lot to do with recognizing when that is happening and seizing the chance for change. Then, trusting that in the end, something good will come out of it. Luck is maybe just looking for the good in things – the half-full verses the half-empty mentality.

I’m a positive person so if I were to believe in luck, I guess I’d call myself lucky. More importantly though, I’m grateful. Zen is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. I am so grateful to all the people that have supported us along the way, encouraged us and cheered us on. It has taken tons of hard work, a dash of risk and sure, some good luck sprinkled on top to get us here. I am so appreciative and so grateful for it all.

 

2 Comments

  1. Nice article Karin.All the best for the future.

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